Hopes were high that UCLA could out-tough, out-work, and out-team the far more talented Gators this year. Florida looked far more vulnerable leading up to the Final Four than they did a year ago.
But it was not to be.
When Florida looked vulnerable this year in losing to, say, Vanderbilt, they looked flat and uninspired. I guess the Final Four was enough to inspire them because they played with fire and intensity Saturday.
When you have one team playing with three players that will be lottery picks in the 2007 NBA draft that is well coached and playing hard, going up against a team without even one lottery pick, also well coached, also playing hard, the math is pretty easy.
There isn't much analysis to do beyond that, except for some little details.
There is a bit of an argument raging on the BRO message board about Ben Howland's game plan for Florida, that is, doubling the post like they failed in doing in the 2006 championship game against Florida. You probably could make a decent argument, given the fact that the plan has failed twice, that it's not a good plan. But what the heck do you do against Florida? It's truly a case of pick your poison. If you choose to allow their bigs to go one-on-one and keep your defenders on their outside shooters, Al Horford and Joakim Noah will kill you inside. The rule of thumb for most college coaches is to always limit a team's inside scoring first, the theory being that it's easier to make three of four lay-ups and dunks than it is 50% of your three-pointers. Especially if you're facing such a balanced team as Florida's. But Florida isn't even balanced; their two interior players, as Howland said leading up to the game, could be the best two inside players in the college game.
Yes, it is frustrating that UCLA failed defensively against Florida with the same game plan it used in the 2006 final. There's a natural impulse to want Howland to attempt something else, mix it up, etc. But, when it comes down to it, Florida doesn't offer you too many options. Despite the fact that it's now proven to be a tough bet doubling the post against Florida, it probably still is the high-percentage strategy for UCLA when facing the Gators. Or, should we say, the highest percentage strategy.
Because if out-manned UCLA played Florida ten times, they'd probably lose 8 of those games. There is just far too much of a disparity in talent.
There are other teams – like Kansas – that are vastly talented, but UCLA has been able to out-play them due to coaching, discipline, intelligence, toughness and intensity. But Florida is that rare instance where a program has put together a highly talented team with good coaching, one whose players do want to win in college. Heck, they all came back to play another year when they all would have probably been lottery picks in the 2006 draft. It sounds like coach-speak, but you do have to give Florida and Donovan a great deal of credit. He has put together a team that Frank Burlison compares to the UNLV teams of the early 1990s, and that's a fair comparison.
If Arron Afflalo hadn't gotten in foul trouble early would it have been a different game? Possibly. UCLA's defense and Florida's poor shooting limited the Gators to 2 points for the first 7:30. UCLA had just a 6-2 lead and, for UCLA to be in this game, it would have had to take advantage of Florida's slow start and been up by, say, 12-2. Afflalo would have greatly enhanced UCLA's chances to do that.
But even with 6 more first-half points, UCLA would have had to weather Florida's second-half onslaught, one that Afflalo didn't have much impact on deterring. With the score 32-28, the Gators went on a 10-0 run and a 17-4 run that pretty much ended the game. UCLA kept battling to get back in it like the warriors they are, but they couldn't.
That run was made up of both three pointers, which Florida started hitting (as opposed to the first half when they missed open looks), and easy dunks or layups. UCLA allowed only one defensive rebound in the first half, but then gave up 10 in the second half, and Florida just dunked the ball back off the rebounds.
It's tough for a team like UCLA, which lives on its tough, disciplined defense, to defend a team well for 30 seconds, only for them to put up a shot that misses, which is then rebounded and put back in with a resounding dunk.
UCLA would have needed a far better interior defensive game to compete with the more talented Gators, but UCLA would have needed an aberration since UCLA's frontline just can't hang with Florida's. The Gators' Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and back-up Chris Richard are just too big, athletic and talented for the limited Bruins. Lorenzo Mata, who had a very good season, withered against the Gators, much like he did last season in the title game, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute got into foul trouble and was a non-factor. Alfred Aboya manned up and played hard, but his 6-7, 235-pound frame isn't enough to match up against Horford, Noah and Richard.
You can't blame UCLA's frontline – they over-achieve most of the time. But when they go up against NBAers like Florida's, their over-achievement runs out.
A great deal of credit has to go to Josh Shipp, who carried UCLA's scoring when Afflalo was on the bench with three fouls. Shipp is fearless and doesn't back away from far more talented players. His excessive confidence, at times this season, got him into trouble, over-penetrating and taking poor shots, but against Florida it worked. He appeared to not be intimidated at all. He finished with 18 points, but also five assists, a few of them being excellent, un-selfish plays.
Afflalo, sadly, had an unfortunate game to end his great junior season. He picked up three fouls and only played five minutes in the first half. The second foul he received was highly questionable; it looked like Afflalo bumped Shipp and was called for a foul. It's hard to say what might have happened had the refs not blown that call and Afflalo would have been able to play more than just 22 overall minutes.
But it probably wouldn't have mattered. Florida is just too good.
It is unfortunate that Afflalo ended a great season this way. He deserves the best. If you're a Bruin fan, it's heart-wrenching to watch the video interview with him from the locker room after the game fighting back tears. As he talks about in the interview, perhaps this loss will be a factor in his decision to return to UCLA for his senior season, however.
This leads you to the issue: Why doesn't UCLA have the level of talent to compete with Florida and do you actually need it to win a national championship?
First, Florida having the type of talent that Florida has, most of the time when it happens in college basketball, is a result mostly of luck rather than recruiting genius. Florida's players, while highly-regarded out of high school, have gone far beyond their expectation. You have to give Donovan credit for recruiting them, but I'm sure if you got Donovan alone and off-the-record he'd admit that his players have even gone beyond his expectation.
Assembling this kind of talent is rare. UCLA just happened to run up against it randomly twice, two years in a row. You could make a case that if Florida didn't have this kind of talent for the last two years, UCLA very well could have won a national championship.
When it comes to UCLA getting Florida's type of talent, it's very possible. UCLA's program is only now getting to the point that it can attract top-10 level talent. It went to a Final Four last year and it then gets Kevin Love, the best post player in the country. It's seriously involved with elite-level talent in both the 2008 and 2009 high school classes.
But UCLA fans, and the Los Angeles media, should have one clear takeaway from the Florida loss: Howland and his coaching have done so much with far less than a team like Florida. He took two teams to the Final Four the last two years that were far less talented than many, many teams in college basketball. There are more talented teams in the country (Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis, etc.) that didn't go as far because, simply, UCLA has better coaching. His approach to the game, emphasizing defense and a controlled offense that wants to run when it has an opportunity, has gotten the talent he's had to over-achieve, not limit it, as some writers have obtusely commented. Is there a team in the Final Four that has less offensively talented players? Howland knows that, first and foremost, defense, can take you very far and can get the most out of any team. Howland has taken two teams to the Final Four that, probably, from a pure talent perspective, had no right being there.
So, if UCLA continues to get the level of talent it currently has, Howland will have it competing for Final Fours and national championships, like he has the last two seasons. If he gets fortunate enough to bring in Florida-level talent (and, as stated above, most of the time it is random that you can assemble such talent), combined with his coaching which gets the most out of talent, it's exciting to think about the possibilities.
We'll have a season review coming soon…